Sharks

'Red Penguins' tells wild story of NHL team's foray into Russian hockey

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'Red Penguins' tells wild story of NHL team's foray into Russian hockey

Vodka, violence and victory.

“Red Penguins,” a documentary released by Universal for streaming On Demand on Tuesday, chronicles the brief foray by the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins into ownership of a Russian professional hockey team. The film features plenty of vodka and violence, although victory proved to be elusive.

Penguins owners Tom Ruta and Steven Baldwin made the decision to invest in the struggling club HC CSKA Moscow, which previously had been controlled by the Soviet Union’s Red Army. Steven Warshaw, then the Penguins' vice president for sales and marketing, was the man tasked with overseeing the day-to-day operations on the ground in Moscow, and guides you through all of the unbelievable twists and turns that came with bringing American ideals of organizational structure and capitalism into a society that was amid a transition from decades of communism.

An in-arena strip club, live bears serving beer and a near nine-figure partnership with Disney are just part of what came to define the Penguins’ wild reign behind the Iron Curtain.

Director Gabe Polsky utilizes Warshaw and his enigmatic personality to tell the majority of the story, but also includes interviews from Russia with the team’s former mascot and broadcaster in Moscow, as well as former Red Army manager Valery Gushin, who developed a unique relationship with Warshaw that was both friendly and contentious.

The crew had to traverse some dangerous ground in collecting the interviews, and even had one interview interrupted by KGB officials.

“This overweight man was just sort of standing behind us for like, way more longer than comfortable,” Polsky said in an interview with NBC Sports Bay Area last week. “Within a couple minutes, the police show up and you hear it, and start saying ‘get the hell out of here,’ and basically they thought there was a bomb nearby.”

Equal parts hilarious and chilling, “Red Penguins” showcases the wildest aspects of running a professional sports franchise in Russia while detailing the danger and sadness that can be a consequence of doing business parallel to an organized crime syndicate.

Polsky, who is the son of Soviet immigrants to the United States, believes American hockey fans and sports fans in general can get a unique look at the complicated relationship between the two world superpowers, and how that dynamic both brought the Penguins immense popularity in Russia and led to their downfall.

“Almost no films out there, that are English-speaking, that take the audience into Russia,” Polsky said. “Seeing the people, understand the psychology, mentality, up against the American mentality, and you see it even more clearly.

“There’s a lot to kind of unpack and understand in this film.”

Whether you’re a Sharks fan, a general sports fan or even just someone who enjoys a compelling story involving international relations, “Red Penguins” will have you glued to your screen. 

NHL rumors: Sharks' Joe Thornton could play in Switzerland before season

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NHL rumors: Sharks' Joe Thornton could play in Switzerland before season

The Sharks' 2019-20 season came to an end on March 11, and the 2020-21 NHL season might not start until December. So what are the players not participating in the NHL restart to do during that six-month hiatus?

Joe Thornton might play hockey in Switzerland. Really. Seriously.

Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman first reported Friday that the 22-year NHL veteran could take advantage of a new clause implemented by the NHL and NHLPA.

"Every August, [Thornton] goes to Switzerland," Friedman said on "Hockey Night In Canada" on Saturday. "Now we know the Sharks won't be playing until December and the NHL and the NHLPA have allowed players to sign overseas with out-clauses to come back then. One of the storylines to watch in the summer, over the next month, does Joe Thornton sign overseas in Switzerland to play and be ready and in better shape, even to return to the NHL for his 23rd season, whenever it begins."

The Athletic's Kevin Kurz confirmed Saturday the possibility of Thornton playing in Switzerland until the 2020-21 season begins.

Thornton is an unrestricted free agent, and has made it clear he wants to play in the NHL for a few more years. Lacing up his skates in Switzerland could be a good way for the 41-year-old center to stay in shape.

The Sharks finished the 2019-20 season with the worst record in the Western Conference and have several restricted and unrestricted free agents they will try to re-sign. General manager Doug Wilson and the Sharks front office have just under $15 million in salary cap space, according to CapFriendly.com.

It's unclear at this point if the Sharks plan to bring Thornton back for a 16th season with the franchise, but captain Logan Couture told NBC Sports California's Brodie Brazil in March that he hopes the stoppage caused by the coronavirus pandemic will allow Thornton to return for another season.

[RELATED: Ex-Sharks to root for in NHL restart]

“I look at this selfishly for Jumbo, hoping that he does come back with us next year," Couture told Brazil. “You know it saves an extra 12 games on those legs and that body of wear and tear, I know he’s gonna get a little bit older, but I think saving some time on that body will help us if he does come back with the Sharks, which I know we’re all hoping that he does.”

Thornton's future with the Sharks is unclear at the moment, but it looks like he'll be skating around an ice rink in Switzerland soon.

Sharks' Evander Kane felt like he couldn't be himself while with Jets

Sharks' Evander Kane felt like he couldn't be himself while with Jets

Sharks winger Evander Kane has been one of the most outspoken individuals in recent months in discussing the systemic racism that has plagued not only the country, but specifically the sport he has played his entire life. 

He recently was named co-head of the newly-formed Hockey Diversity Alliance, whose mission is to "eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey," and appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area's "Race in America: A Candid Conversation," in which he called for athletes to use their platforms for the greater good and not "stick to sports."

In a league that has extremely little minority representation, Kane is one of the relatively few current NHL players who can directly speak to the prevalence of systemic racism within the sport of hockey. As he explained on a recent episode of the NHL's "Soul on Ice" podcast with Kwame Damon Mason, he was exposed to it from the very beginning.

"I think it's engrained in you at a really young age," Kane told Mason. "Hockey is such a team sport, and you learn that when you first put your skates on and are a member of your first team. It's all about the team first, and those types of things are preached. And that's one of the great parts about hockey, is it is a team sport, and you understand that's what you sign up for.

"At the same time, the messaging -- especially in Canada -- that goes along with that is kind of conforming to what everybody else is doing. Individuality and personality is looked at -- especially as a minority player -- in a negative light. It's looked at as an issue. There's some sort of internal, maybe subconscious bias that not only players have, but parents, coaches, etc., and it's unfortunate."

Kane broke into the NHL with the Atlanta Thrashers after being selected with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2009 Entry Draft. But when the Thrashers were moved to Winnipeg and became the Jets in his third NHL season, he encountered an environment similar to the one he described.

"I came into the league with a lot of personality," Kane continued. "Always been a great teammate coming through Junior and so on and so forth. I get to Atlanta, things are fine, things are good, I have my first couple of years in the NHL. And then we get to Winnipeg and it's crazy to me, because for the first time, I felt like I couldn't be myself. I became paranoid with everything I said or did, and really to me, it kind of pushed me into a corner where I felt I couldn't do or say what I wanted to do as a grown man at that point."

[RELATED: Kane discusses NHL's 'Hockey is for Everyone' movement]

Kane was traded from Winnipeg to the Buffalo Sabres in 2015, and -- almost exactly three years later -- was traded from Buffalo to San Jose. Ultimately, he ended up in a situation where he doesn't feel his individuality is restricted or seen as a negative.

"Now, I've definitely grown out of that -- that's expired," Kane added. "And I'm part of an organization and group of guys that really push those individual qualities and the uniqueness of individuals. And I think you look at any team, any great team, any team that has won the Cup -- you look at St. Louis last year -- I'm sure that they weren't 20 of the exact same people. They had different personalities, different players, different skillsets that came together as a team to make themselves great. And I think that's how you build great teams."

The Sharks clearly must improve on the ice to be considered a great team again, but due to the presence of players like Kane and others, it would appear they have one of the necessary ingredients -- in his estimation -- to do so.